Starting new projects can be incredibly daunting, particularly if you’re working on a new client, new in the agency, or on the receiving end of a shoddy handover. Ben Aston talks to Joanna Leigh Simon to discuss the questions to ask about the project plan, team, client and work to get your bearings and get a project in order. Listen up to learn how you can make your own project onboarding experience a whole lot less stressful.
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Ben Aston: Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston, and this is the Digital Project Manager Podcast. Today, I’m joined by the wonderful Joanna Leigh Simon, famous … world famous, in fact, for the great pen giveaway of 2017. Stay tuned. Probably I’m hoping Joanna would have something to giveaway today. And she always have something exciting to share with us. So, welcome Joanna.
Joanna: Hi Ben. Thank you so much for having me again.
Ben Aston: Cool. Today we’re going to talk about what happens when we get dumped on a new project. Sometime when we get dumped on a new project. Sometimes when we get landed on a new project it’s a good thing, but often it can be pretty tricky. So, we’re going to talk about some of the things that we can do to get our bearings and to get the projects in order so that we can actually start managing it.
I think taking on projects from other people, sometimes even just starting projects can be pretty stressful. We’re going to be talking about the ways that we can get ourselves sorted and make the whole thing less stressful. But before we dive into that, Joanna, tell us just a bit about who you are, for those of you who haven’t met you before, what are you doing and what is your deal?
Joanna: Sure. I am a producer, project manager currently based in Philadelphia, and I’ve been working for about the past eight years in small agencies. First, sort of a comprehensive public relations and advertising firms, then in video production, and most recently at a graphic design and branding firm. Each of these gigs, obviously, has had a heavy digital component being led, it is the 21st century. I’m actually currently waiting through, figuring out what my next position is going to be in. Considering a potential move out of the city of Philadelphia.
Ben Aston: Exciting times. If you have a job for Joanna and you’re listening to this and you’re like, “Oh, I wanna hire that girl.” Get in touch with her. Joanna is available for hire. Tell us, in your … While you’ve got some downtime, what do you keep yourself busy with? I know in your bio, you talked about some of the things you like to do in your spare time, and I’m just interested, how do you manage that process in terms of keeping yourself busy, keeping yourself engaged with stuff when it could be so easy just to be like, “I’m just going to chill out.”
Joanna: Definitely, considering it was the holidays and everyone was on vacation, I’ve definitely given myself a lot of chill out time, which has been really great, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is lucky enough to have the chance. But I, also, surprisingly stayed really busy.
I’ve been doing a lot of freelance work, which is really exciting. Mostly, actually in brand strategy, which I love to do. So that’s been great working with people locally, but also some clients in California and all over the place, which is awesome. And really just trying to do all the things that is hard to do when you have a full time job. Just really been all things, like going to the doctor and exercising and running errands and fixing things around my apartment. So it’s been really nice just to be able to take care of all that, administrivia.
Ben Aston: I know it’s funny, isn’t it? How actually just living life is a full-time job.
Joanna: It really is.
Ben Aston: Just like doing things like going to the dentist, going to the doctor, getting yourself sorted for your next big thing. I’m interested though, as I … One of the things that comes up in our Slack team quite often, I see in the Remote PM channel. I’d love to hear your perspective. People ask I’m thinking about going to freelance or contract project management, but how do you get the work? It seems like people in the knows can get their own gigs, and it’s awesome that you’ve been able to pick up some work. How do you find that work?
Joanna: To be completely honest, I didn’t necessarily go looking for these gigs, I think they found me. I love to do the work. That’s just something about myself that I’ve come to terms with over the past couple of years.
I prefer the term career as to the term ‘workaholic’, but call it what you will. I just love to do the work. I guess in having conversations with friends and acquittances, while I was explaining that I was going to have this downtime while I was dedicating myself to looking for a new full-time job, people will just say, “Oh, you know what, I have this friend, she just started her own business. She could really use somebody to help her get organized or to help her strategize about this, that.” And the other thing, “Would you want to meet her?” And I will constantly say, “Yes.” Because I find the work fascinating.
I also, I guess, would reach out to people who I knew my benefit from services that I could offer and just say, you know, I have some time on my hands, I’d love to work with you. Not necessarily because I’m trying to hustle for the money, but because I really truly enjoy doing this kind of work, and I miss it when I’m not doing it full time.
Ben Aston: That’s cool. The key is to know some people and hope that they’ve got some work for you. I feel like it’s the same for most people. Your individual network are so important in finding work, and it’s not like there’s this secret stash of contract PM jobs that are currently just waiting to be picked up by people. It seems to be like that individual networking seems to be really important.
Joanna: Absolutely. I mean, it’s so cliché, but it’s so true. This types of things happen so organically, most of the time when you’re not even actively pursuing them. I mean, I’m going to be completely honest with you. The idea of being a full-time freelancer is terrifying to me because I don’t love that hustle of trying to find gigs. I feel like that’s just not for me. I’m kind of bad at selling myself in that way, but I found that a lot of times if you just are honest with people about what you’re looking for and what you can offer, then things will just materialize organically.
Ben Aston: That’s really interesting. We’re going to talk about today, a couple of things. First thing that I wanted to talk about what the article that you wrote just recently. It’s all about questions to ask when starting a new project. If you haven’t checked it out yet, particularly, if you’re embarking on a new project and you feel a bit like a deer in the headlights, then this one is for you.
I think starting projects can be incredibly daunting, particularly if we’re working on a new client or we’re new to the agency, or there’s this feeling that you’ve landed on a project and you’re told, okay, this is your project now, you’re in-charge. It can be pretty terrifying. Particularly because, usually, and I say nine times out of ten, in my experience, the person handing over the project to you doesn’t care anymore. All they insist is that, actually the project is so simple that it doesn’t need a handover. Everyone knows what they’re doing, and there’s no need to have any notes.
That’s my experience on being dumped on projects. No one really knows what’s going on. There’s no notes, there’s no handover, so what do you do. That’s what we’re going to talk about today. Questions to ask when starting a new project. Joanna, just tell me first. What has been your experiences of taking over projects like this? Are you all similar to mine, that you feel like you’ve been thrown in at the deep end and it’s kind of a sink or swim thing, or do you have some better experiences?
Joanna: I don’t think I’ve had any horror stories, but this is a situation that I’ve certainly been in many times. I think the most visual memory is when I started my last job. I came in and they had not had any sort of project manager in place for quite a while. So, the creative directors were actually managing all the projects and there were about 20 projects in the agency at that time. When I came in I demanded to sit down and go through each project one by one and ask all of these questions that come up in the article, and it was pretty tedious but also amazing to just get all of these information all at once.
I guess this is going to sound really nerdy, but I think if you really love project management, which I’m assuming most of your listeners do, that diving in and facing a challenge like taking on a project halfway through was actually kind of fascinating and a challenge that a lot of people will, I think, really rise to. Personally, I find it exciting in a really narcissistic way.
Ben Aston: I think it can be exciting. I think what’s important though, is kind of what you outlined in the article. Is to have a bit of a plan for how you tackle taking on a project, because I think it can be … It will be in the excitement, should I say, of taking on a new project. You can just jump straight into the work and the project, but I think what you talked about in your article is … Well, I’m going to summarize it into four areas. You talked about the kind of understanding of the project management plan. Getting to grips with the team, understanding the client, and then the fourth thing is the work.
You’ve talked about asking yourself, firstly about the statement of work and talking about what are we actually delivering? I think really importantly, what are we not delivering. Joanna, just talked about that kind of understanding. How you get to grips with the statement of work.
Joanna: Absolutely. In the article, I go into a little bit more detail about the questions that you should ask when you start out and who you should be asking, but I think that project managers get a bad rap for being the killjoys of … Particularly in a creative environment, the people who come in and say, okay, well, everyone hold your horses, don’t get too carried away. And while I never liked to be that person I think that that’s just essential to what we do. And so that question about making sure that as project manager, you understand what we’re not delivering, I think is really important. When I ask that question, that’s usually one that I get faced with a lot of eye rolls and growls and like, “Oh, here comes the project manager wanting to clip our wings again.”
Sometimes you just have to be the bad guy. But I think that question is so important, because that’s how you safe everyone from confusion and from wasting time and energy and money. I’ve just gotten into a lot of situations in the past where clients or creatives or account managers sort of want to shoot for the moon and just say, “Why will we limit ourselves? Let’s just do everything.” As a project manager, unfortunately, I think making sure that you’re getting honest answer out of people about what we’re not meant to deliver is really important because that’s how you safe people from themselves, ultimately. So I think that that’s a really big one, and even if they don’t like it they will thank you later.
Ben Aston: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Particularly when you’re starting a project when it’s midway through, and if you don’t ask that question, you can kind of get carried along with the excitement of the project, and sometimes there is internal consensus that “hey, we’re gonna put a load of internal resources on this because we wanna … We think this is a very good chance to win an award or we’re gonna invest in this heavily because if we get this right then there’s going to be additional work coming down the line”. But if you just go with the flow and go with it, before asking yourself, “What are we not delivering?” I think with that as well, what are the milestones, and you talked about this. Is there a deadline? Because that will play into it as well.
Often if we just leave the team to their own devices, they will create the most amazing thing but it will take forever and it will be really expensive, but it will probably win awards.
Joanna: Absolutely. And I never want to be the person who prevents my team from doing really amazing work. I think that it’s just all about managing expectations so that you can be sort of the voice of reason and you can push people to over deliver or do that extra amazing work if it’s going to be good for the team. But if you think that people are just getting in their own way and burning resources then you can also step in and say, look guys, we’re not meant to be delivering XY and Z, so give yourselves a little bit of a break.
Ben Aston: I think one of the other things you talked about under this umbrella of the questions that we should ask in terms of understanding the plan, is have we done this before. Has this been done before by as, by someone else? I think that’s such a key thing to be asking the team and perhaps other producers and managers on your team. Like, guys, is there any shortcuts that we can leverage or things that we can access that we can reuse? Because by nature, people like to reinvent the wheel. People tend to think, “Oh, we didn’t quite do it as good as we should have done it last time, so we need to do it again.”
I think asking that question, “What could we reuse that we’ve done before, is really important.”
Joanna: Absolutely. I think that that question also plays in to the idea of a project manager being a person who has to manage expectations for their team, and sometimes come in and be the bad cop who says, look, we need to shut it down or we need to get it done rather than this being a time to experiment.
But looking at what’s come before can also be a great way to find a fast lane to innovation. So you’re absolutely right. It’s about making sure that we’re not reinventing the wheel but it’s also about saying, okay, if you guys really want to have some fun with this let’s work together to assess the opportunities where our time will be best spent. Because if it’s already been done before, then let’s not go down that path again, let’s find out where we can be really innovative and original here, because we’re studying what has been already done.
Ben Aston: I think that’s … It can save you a lot of pain down the road, for sure. Talking about pain, I think one of the things that you talked about is when considering the overall plan, what might get in the way, and I think this is a great question to ask. Like, whenever we’re working on a project, if this thing is going to fail, why would it fail? What are the major hurdles that we’re likely or could encounter along the way. I’m curious, how do you keep track of that? Kind of the answers to that question, and how do you tease out that from the team and prepare for it?
Joanna: Well, I think that my entire approach to project management really hinges on honesty. I think that all of these questions that I suggest you ask when you’re put in this situation of being thrown on a new project, midway through, really relies on your team and your clients and all of your stakeholders being honest with you and you being honest with yourself. So, I think asking what do you foresee as being potential roadblocks or what do you think might cause this project to fail, that question really only proves its worth if you get an honest response. But if you do, then I think it can really just open up a whole world for the project manager, because you can dedicate some time to investigating solutions to problems before they even arise, and when they do arise, just putting those solutions into action immediately.
I think that’s something that people forget a lot of times, myself included. I mean, hindsight is 2020. So, me sitting here giving advice, by all means doesn’t meant that I do these things perfectly every time. It’s just I’ve had time to think about these situations and how I would approach them differently in the future. But I think that’s something that project managers need to remember, is that, it is our job, sometimes to go off on these little tangents and go off of these little winding paths, sort of examining problems that maybe haven’t happened yet, but they could, and having those solutions ready to go in our toolkit. I would spend time at various jobs researching or strategizing about solving problems that hadn’t even happened, but really just as preparation.
I think some people would look at that as burning time. But I think it’s so important because even if that problem doesn’t come up in the next week or month or year or on the project that you’re working on right now, maybe it will come up sometime in the future but you’ll be prepared. Or, even more importantly, maybe it will come up not for you but for one of your colleagues, and you’ll be at the ready to help. Which, I think is also super valuable.
Ben Aston: For sure. We’ve talked about questions to ask. Questions around the plan, the statement of work, the timeline delivery. Next, let’s talk about the team. This is a potentially tricky one. Particularly if you’re new to an agency. Even if you’re just dumped on a project, one of the things that you talked about asking is or who’s going to do the work. Have you got a resource plan and is that resource plan fit for purpose? But I’m curious as how you work out whether or not a resource plan is right. How do you work out whether or not people are good or right for the job? I think if you’re new it can often be the case that you’re going to land with all the people that no one else wants to work with because everyone is asking you who to resource, and you’re left with the scraps. How do you manage that?
Joanna: You make a really good point. Which is asking this question is sometimes just as much about being prepared for bad news as it is about ensuring that everything is going right. Whichever outcome it ends up being, I think asking the question is important. Just so that you get to know the outcome. Before, I said that I think one of the most important things … One of the keystones to my philosophy of project management is honesty, and I think another one is instinct, and I think that having good instinct is such an important part of being a good project manager, and especially when it comes to people.
So, I think that even if you ask this question and you hear the answer from other people, a big part of it is just using your own instincts to fill out the team, ask the people on the team the right questions to try and figure out if they’re the right people for the job, and maybe, even if you don’t have any control over staffing the project because you’ve been inserted halfway through, at least, maybe you can try and get to know your team rapidly and assess what you think people’s strengths and weaknesses are and use your instincts to make sure that your project team have everything they need and foresee any holes that might need to be filled along the line.
Ben Aston: I think that’s really standard advice. I think one of the ways that we can do that kind of rapid assessment is by … Well, I think I should first say, I think the temptation is that you kind of get put on a new project and on a new team and me being an optimistic person, I tend to think, oh, I’m sure everyone knows what they’re doing. I’m sure people have done this before. I think, for me that’s where things tend to rapidly unwind. I think as we’re working with our team for the first time, it’s really asking those questions that ordinarily you wouldn’t need to ask, that perhaps should be common sense, but asking them you know, what are you working on right now, when are you going to finish that thing, have you done this before, do you know what you’re doing?
That might sound like stupid questions, but sometimes you can find out people have been put on doing something that they’ve got no idea what they’re doing and they have no idea when they’ll finish or it could be completely the wrong plan. Just because you inherit a plan from someone else and teams being assigned to it doesn’t mean that it’s the right plan or you have the right team at all. Asking those questions quickly at the beginning can prevent some serious budget burn rather than just resting on your laurels and thinking, ” Oh, well, I’m new. It’s okay.” Get stuck in there with the team as soon as you can.
Joanna: Absolutely. I think that especially now that we’re talking about it, that I’m really thinking about it a lot, it’s just keeping in mind that being a good project manager is so much about soft skills and so much about people skills and about asking the right questions. Not only so that you have really airtight documentation and making sure that time and money and everything is allocated for properly, but really being able to survey a project from a 10,000 feet view and understand the nuances when it comes to different personalities and their needs and not everything is just about timelines and budgets and specs.
There are so much that goes into managing a project that it’s just about the [affirmara 00:25:27], and I think for me personally, that’s why I love it. Because I do like to be organized and have documentation and everything, but I think I love … And that’s part of what I was saying at the beginning about liking the challenge of coming into a project halfway through, it’s just a really good time to test and to stretch your soft skills.
Ben Aston: Next step. We’ve talked about the plan, we’ve talked about the team, next stop, the client. And I think you make a really good point here. Asking the question, who is the client? Who is the one that is calling the shoots? Who’s the point of contact? Who’s the ultimate decision-maker, but understanding who are all the different people that are involved in the project and kind of getting the sense of the layer that I’m there. Do you want to expand on your thoughts there?
Joanna: Sure, yeah. This question definitely comes from personal experience. I have found that this happens all the time, where you’re either told by the project team or by management or by the client themselves, who it is that is sort of the key stakeholder or the decision-maker or the main point of contact, but then after a period of time you realize that that is not the case. It’s not that anyone is doing anything deceitful or nefarious. I think that sometimes people just don’t understand … Well, maybe I’m not giving them enough credit. I think sometimes people just don’t realize that on paper the client is one person, but in practice it’s either an entire group of people or someone different, or maybe you have someone who’s the main person on the day to day, on the ground, but at the end of the day, you really need to find out from someone else. And even just encouraging your clients to be open with you about that is really important. And also explaining to them that that’s totally normal.
I think ensuring your client, like, I don’t mind if there’s another secret stakeholder that you’re hiding in the closet somewhere. I know how business works. I don’t mind if you’re going to tell me, three weeks from now, that this needs to be run by someone else, I just want to know in advance that that’s going to happen so I can prepare for it.
Ben Aston: That’s so true. I mean, it sounds so straightforward, doesn’t it? It sounds like, “Yeah, of course, you should know who the client is.” But it is so true. Particularly when you’re taking on a new client you’ve not worked on before. It’s one thing to take on a new project, but taking on a new client where you don’t really understand who’s ultimately in charge. There are so often clients hiding in the closets and they are the most important part of the whole process, the ones that are hiding.
It’s always the fact that the more junior clients are trying to make their mark, they’re trying to impress their boss, and they’re running a bit of a risky one trying to run the project without getting approval along the way. At least understanding, “Hey, is there anyone else who needs to sign this off?” Even just asking you that question, just so you can suggest additional checking points with the more senior clients, so you don’t end up burning budget on stuff that ultimately gets rejected and then there’s always a bit of a snag when it’s like, who’s going to pick up the bill for this rogue work that we’ve done or you’ve been misdirected on something. I think that understanding the client is really important.
Let’s touch on the fourth aspect. Which is the work. You talked about asking questions about success. I think this is so important when we’re picking up a new project. Understand why we’re doing this work. Is it to gain more brand awareness, to ensure a successful launch or something. To acquire more users, to increase revenue, and goes alongside that is that kind of understanding of successes. Understanding, okay, how are we going to be successful. Understanding the audience or the consumer. Making sure that we understand, is this work that we’re creating actually right. Is it going to deliver that success? How do you get into that place where you understand the strategic goals for a project and dive into deeper, making sure that the work we’re doing is fit for purpose and it’s going to do the job?
Joanna: I think that this question is super important for a number of reasons. Obviously, if you’re newly staffed on the project it’s a really easy and straightforward way for you to find out in the eyes of your client and your team and all the different stakeholders, like why are we doing this. Because I think having a why is so important in project-based work in general. Just knowing what your goals are and being able to keep yourself and your team focused, but also I think it’s a really good opportunity, and this is one of the silver linings of being thrown into a project that’s already underway. Is it’s a really great opportunity to refocus the client.
I think that sometimes … And it’s nobody’s fault, it’s completely understandable. They’re probably working on a zillion things. But I think it’s really important to take advantage of this opportunity to refocus our client, so that not only can you, as the project manager, and the vendor, understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, but hear from the client in their own words why they are spending money on this work in the first place and then use that answer to guide them and to motivate them throughout the reminder of the process. It’s a really great opportunity to remind your client why they hired your team. It’s a really great opportunity to sort of spoonfeeding back to the client in their own words.
You know that you understand what they’re trying to do and that you are there to help them achieve their goals. I think it’s really great in unifying the project team and the client team with one goal and I just think it’s like a really great opportunity to get everyone back on the same page. If maybe, people got a little bit lost on the source during the transition or if everyone seems to be on the same page and there aren’t really any challenges, then great. You’ve walked into a good situation, so applaud that and be thankful for that.
Ben Aston: I think you’re so right in terms of it being actually a really good opportunity to ask questions that if you’ve been managing the project previously, you kind of couldn’t get away with asking. Because you should have stopped this. But be asking this questions. How is this actually delivering on our client’s strategic objectives? How is this actually going to work? Being the person to ask those nagging questions, just to realign the team, I think is so useful. I think that’s really sound advice.
Just to wrap this up. Some there thought that I had around how is it that we can do handovers better in terms of being as the person who’s taking on a project, one of the kind of things that we need to be aware of. I think the first thing is just this awareness that actually, it’s okay to fill out of your debts. When you’re picking up a new project there’s this kind of unfamiliarity with the project and actually, that’s totally normal. It’s okay not to have all the answers, but the important thing is to get some quick. I think what you’ve been talking about today in terms of some of the questions we can ask, and check out the article to read all of these questions that Joanne has put down. Asking those questions so that we can get a plan and get an idea of what’s going on is really important. Just one more thing that I’d add is it can be really tempting when you’re picking up a new project to over commit.
Particularly if you’re put under pressure, whether that’s with the client or with the team, you want to be a positive influence, you want to be the person that says yes, and get stuff done and delivers. A word of caution would be just don’t over commit. Because you probably don’t know everything, so, at least for the first little while, make sure you’re not over committing to stuff because you’ll just create more problems for yourself later. One of the things that I talked about at the beginning, how it can sort of be the case that you get a project or you’re dumped on a project and nobody really haven’t got any idea what’s going on because you’ve had a really terrible handover. Joanne, I’m just wondering, before you go. Have you got any thoughts on handovers and how we can do them better? If we’re the person not receiving the project but the one handing it over to another PM, how do you like to do that?
Joanna: It’s a really good question, and I’m sure that there are infinite answers, can always be improving. But if I had to talk about one thing, I guess it looks like by hook or by crook, we’ve discovered a theme to this conversation, at least for me, which is honestly and just like … I think what’s best for everyone. Whether you’re the one who’s handing over the information or the one receiving it is to just be really open and honest, and to go back to what you were just saying about not over-committing. I think I would reiterate, don’t feel the need to pretend that you’re more comfortable than you are. It’s okay to be vulnerable and ask questions, and it’s okay to ask questions more than once if you don’t understand something and if you’re working with good people, then they’ll be sensitive to that and they’ll help you get where you need to go.
Asking as many questions as you need to, as many times as you need to, from as many different people as you need to, don’t be afraid to just be open and honest and vulnerable with your team. Because I think, even though it may feel weak I the moment or you may be frustrated that you’re not getting the hang of things, or wrapping your head around them as quickly as you’d like to. Ultimately it’s just better for everyone when we’re all honest with each other.
Ben Aston: I think that’s really sound advice. One thing I’d add to that is if it seems like when you’re asking these probing questions and nobody seems to have the answers, it’s probably because there are no answers. Because there isn’t a plan in place. Sometimes when we pick up projects we’re like, okay, I’ve just got to keep on digging. There comes a point where it seems like there’s no plan or it seems like the plan isn’t really fit for purpose. As the project manager, you should feel totally empowered to make a new plan and work out with the team a way that you are going to deliver the project, that you are going to deliver success, and that it’s going to deliver the strategic objective of the project.
I think we can sometimes think when we’re taking over a project, oh, I don’t really know enough of that. I’m sure this is probably the right idea. I’d say, trust your guts, trust your instincts. It’s kind of where Joanna was starting, and make a plan. And then it’s a plan that you can own and you can deliver on.
Joanna: Absolutely. 100% agree.
Ben Aston: Joanna, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been great having you with us.
Joanna: Thank you so much. It’s so fun. I’m sorry that I sound so congested.
Ben Aston: Before we go, do you have anything to give away this week? Last time it was pens, and I’m curious to know, did anyone take you up on your offer of the pen?
Joanna: I’m really disappointed to say that nobody did. I’m feeling like maybe if you guys don’t want my special pens, then maybe you don’t get anything this time around. Although, speaking of congestion, I am looking, right now, at a fresh pack of Sudafed. The giveaway from me, this time will be fresh pack of Pseudoephedrine, should you need any for this cold and flu season, you know where to find me. Hit me up.
That’s a pretty good offer. If you’d like some Sudafed, you’d like to contribute to the conversation, then comment on the post and head over the community section of the digital project manager to join our Slack team, where you’ll find all kinds of interesting conversations going on. But until next time, thanks for listening.